Two ghosts haunted my childhood.
The first belonged to my mother, who according to my father was lost to the sea while I was still in my cradle. My father and I lived alone in a dwindling fishing community with my mother's shadow lying between us, keeping us company. My father's love for the sea was matched only by his love for my mother; he passed both these loves on to me.
He did not, however, pass on his healthy sense of respect for the sea's power. No amount of water frightened me. I was as at home in the strongest of tides as I was in my own bathtub.
My father often watched me play in the sea, his eyes full of fear, the eyes of one who had already lost much to her waves. That one love should have robbed him of the other seemed a terrible thing, yet somehow fitting. Of the sea he told countless tales, stories of the mundane and mystical things that dwelt beneath the waves. Of my mother he said nothing. She was little more than a name to me, a name never spoken without the echo of an ache filling the room.
The second ghost seemed to be a more literal one: the summer I turned six years old I began to see a woman walking the shoreline beyond our house. I only saw her late at night, nights I couldn't sleep, kept awake by an undefined longing. My bedroom window was a few boat-lengths from the high-tide line, and although the distance and the darkness conspired to keep me from examining the ghost more closely, I was certain she was beautiful. Her clothing was shapeless and indistinct, a dark covering that did little more than drape over her shoulders. Long, dark hair hung damply down her back.
I saw her first in early summer, then once in a while as the weather began to grow warmer. She would walk past at the water's edge, always either watching our house or looking out to the water. Sometimes I saw her walk out into the sea, but I never saw her emerge. There was an aura of sorrow about her that I recognized even though I was very young. That sorrow and her mysterious disappearances were why, after hearing tales from the old men and women of the island, I began calling her a ghost.
Finally, on a humid night late that summer, I mentioned her to my father. Supper was just finished, and a question pressed heavy on my mind. I was proudly helping my father wash the dishes, although the air was so still and damp that the plates I wiped held onto a patina of moisture. "Papa?" I asked shyly. "Are ghosts real?"
"Some folks think so," he replied, scrubbing out a pot. "Some folks see ghosts in every wind and behind every shadow."
"But what do you think?" I pressed.
He was quiet for a moment, then put aside the dishcloth and crouched to my level. "I think people usually see what they want to see." He ruffled my hair. "Someone been telling you about ghosts, cap'n?"
"No, I just heard someone talking about them."
He studied me for a moment. "Did something scare you?"
"No. . . ." I hesitated. "Haven't you seen her around the house outside?"
"Our ghost. She's a pretty, pretty lady but I think she has sad eyes. She stays near the water and watches the house. She doesn't look real, so I thought she was a ghost."
My father caught me in a fierce hug, his arms tightening painfully around my ribs. "I don't want you to go near her."
I squirmed in the uncomfortable hold. "But who is she?"
"Just don't go near her."
"But Papa, what if she's -- I mean, she could be--" I couldn't finish the statement.
He sighed and let me go. That was the first time I noticed the streaks of gray in his dark hair. "I don't know. She could be. Just stay away." We finished the dishes in silence. My father didn't speak another word before I went to bed, but stared out the window at the empty beach as if hoping for a glimpse of my mysterious ghost.
Several nights later, I was lying in bed, feeling a coming storm on the cool breeze from the water, when I heard someone calling outside my window. A woman's voice, both familiar and wrenchingly alien. Frightened, I didn't respond until I realized she was calling my real name, the name my mother and I had shared, the name my father never used. The voice called my name with a terrible patience, never growing loud or harsh, until I followed it, creeping past my father's bedroom and through the dark house until I stood out on the beach. I waited there like a fogbound ship looking for the flash of a lighthouse, some sense of direction, a beacon to steer by.
Then I saw her. Standing near the water was my ghost. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She was wet, as if she had just come from the depths of the sea, depths that reflected like starlight in her sad sea-colored eyes. Her long hair flowed past her waist, the color of dark honey. Draped over her shoulders was a cape made of an uncut animal's pelt. Gray-brown with a texture between leather and fur, it glistened, alive, as if it had retained its animal soul as well as its shape.
I heard her draw breath at the sight of me, watching me as I came closer. "So many times I have waited here and watched your father's house," she said, her soft voice flowing through liquid vowels and oddly accented consonants. "So many times I have waited, cherishing each small glimpse of you and your father there."
I wanted to run back to the house and pretend this was a dream, but her haunted eyes kept me there, transfixed.
"Your father will not admit it, but I have watched over you all along. I wanted to keep you with me, but I knew I could not."
I remembered my father's words -- "lost to the sea" -- as I looked into wild, watery eyes. "Wh-why did you leave us?" I couldn't bring myself to call her "mother."
"I wanted to stay. I tried to. I begged your father to take this and hide it from me." Here her webbed fingers clutched at the cape around her shoulders. "But in the end he did not hide it well enough." She sighed, folding her body inward.
"I don't understand."
"We are what we are. The sea called to me night and day, just as she does you, only louder." Without asking, I understood the call she meant, the voiceless pull that kept drawing me to the water unafraid despite my father's fears. "She wailed for me, weeping, as I have wept to see you onshore. Finally the weeping grew too loud for me to bear. I found what was hidden in your father's shed and I ran to the water.
"Your father never understood. You will, though. You will. The sea is a beautiful, terrible place, impossible to leave for long. I have never known a love that could keep me from her." I could see tears gathering in eyes that collected the light and held it until it shattered. "But I do love you. I always have."
I cried then. I cried for myself and for my father, I cried for this lovely creature that stood in front of me. I was too young to understand, and for that also, I wept.
She smiled through the salt haze of her tears. From beneath her cape she drew a second pelt, similar to her own, but smaller. My heart beat staccato at the sight of it. I closed the rest of the distance between us and threw myself at her legs, clutching and hugging. For a single moment, too fleeting, one damp hand brushed over my hair in an awkward gesture. "I took it with me when I left. . . ."
Before I could speak, I heard my father's voice behind me. "Siwan." He spoke my name, but I knew he was not speaking to me. "Please . . . not yet. She's still too young. . . ."
My mother spoke. "She is old enough to decide who she is."
For the first time, I saw my father's sadness, hidden behind all of his stories and smiles. "Siwan, I--" He stopped, lowering his head.
I turned to see him, my hands still reaching for the pelt. The three of us stood frozen, a broken family in tableau. My father stood there, with nothing of magic about him, no particular beauty. He was simple and human in every way that my mother was not. She was solemn magic and beauty beyond my imagining. My father had given me love and security and a home, but my mother offered me the entire sea, held out with the sealskin -- my sealskin -- in her hands. He was the earth and she was the sea; I was part of them both.
I looked from one to the other; then looked down. My hands, with their hard, thin-lined scars between the fingers, caught my attention. I looked up at my mother's hands, with the delicate tracery of webs between the fingers. I raised my own to my father questioningly, turning my open palms so he could see the scars.
"You were born with webbing between your fingers and toes like your mother," he said, an ache in his voice. He turned to my mother. "The doctors said it was a simple thing to cut them away. . . . I just wanted her to be normal." He stopped again, unable to meet my eyes or my mother's.
I half-remembered the smell of antiseptic, soothing voices that lied and told me it wouldn't hurt. I could, if I closed my eyes, still hear my own screams. I could remember the searing pain that cut through anesthetic and burned into the core of my being. I had never understood that memory until now.
"You knew what she was when she was born." My mother was calm, almost emotionless, yet I saw a glimmer of moisture rise in her eyes as she looked at my scarred fingers. "Siwan," she said to me. "She is calling you." Again she raised the sealskin to me.
The breeze that had been playing with the hem of my nightgown and ruffling my hair stopped, as if the sea were holding her breath. Slowly, I reached my hands up and took the sealskin. My senses became confused in a brilliant swirl of stimulation. Colors danced into deeper hues, singing their new vibrant tones to me. The sea breeze picked up again, carrying with it a smell of life, of lives, of things beyond knowing. Off in the distance, I could hear a seal mother calling her pup, and I could make out the meaning without the need of words. I was complete.
My mother turned and walked into the sea once more, and I began to follow her. Once more my father cried, "Siwan!" I turned. My mother did not. My father looked old. Mortal. His eyes were as dry as the land he lived on, but the pain reflected in them has stayed with me always.
The story always ends this way. My mother never understood my father's grief at losing her. Now, years later on a different beach, I understand. I swore long ago I would never stand where I stand now, but the sea, with ageless patience, waited. My child is cradled in her father's arms, just as my sealskin -- the one he hid so long ago -- is cradled in mine. He begs me to stay. He does not understand and I cannot explain. I had the words once, but no longer.
"Forgive me, love," I say. What my mother did not understand, I see so clearly in his eyes. I see in him my father's pain, a pain that stretches back for as long as men have lived and loved at the ocean's edge. Even with that understanding, I cannot stay, any more than my mother could stay.
"Think of Ellen," he pleads, holding her out to me. She is rosy and perfect, as perfect as I remember my mother being. She waves a tiny fist and wraps it around my finger when I offer it to her. Between her small fingers are webbings of skin to the first knuckle, the flesh as tender and vulnerable as the scars on my own hands are horned and hard.
"Promise you'll never cut them," I say.
"Anything," he says, salt tears falling over his cheeks. "Just stay with me. Stay with us."
"You knew this day would come, from the day you found me here."
"I don't want to lose you."
"I was never really yours to keep," I say it as gently as I can. "I belong to her, love. She is ready to take me back." I could hear her, the sea, weeping and calling me home. "Promise me," I say again. "Do not cut them."
"Promise you'll come back," he counters, "and I will."
I let go of Ellen's hand and I smile. "I will come back." I will be Ellen's ghost, always watching over her. One night I will come back to give her what is hers.
"Do you swear?" he says, cradling Ellen close.
"I swear by my mother, by my father, and by the sea herself. I will watch over you and Ellen, and one night I will come back." I smile as I speak, but behind me the sea laughs, her waves crashing into the shore in an endless rhythm. Like her, her children are always drawn to the shore, and like her they always eventually retreat.
I kiss my child, knowing she will grow up feeling the sea's pull but not understanding it. I kiss my lover, knowing that like my father he is destined to lose both wife and daughter. Then, like my mother, I turn and walk into the sea.
Copyright © 2002 Lisa Nichols
Lisa Nichols is an almost lifelong resident of the Midwest, and likes it that way. Her fiction has previously appeared in InterText, and she has co-authored several books for Dream Pod 9, a roleplaying game company. When she is not writing, she is a full-time student of the breed quaintly labelled "non-traditional," or, as her classmates like to call her, "Granny."